Expert topic: Tilapia
by Daniel Jackson, Content Editor, International Aquafeed
The resilience and versatility of tilapia has taken the fish from its natural habitat – the rivers of north Africa – to almost every continent on the planet. The species adapts to a wide range of environments. In one extreme example, having been introduced to the Salton Sea in California (which was merely brackish at the time) tilapia now thrive there in salinity levels that kill other native marine species. Numerically, at least, it is an evolutionary success story.
The name tilapia is an umbrella term for a variety of species, the most common being Mozambique tilapia, the Oreochromis aurenus and the Nile Tilapia. It is streamlined with a deep body. The lateral line in tilapia, like many fish, is uninterrupted.
Their fins are mostly spined, with the dorsal fins most heavily so. The most common colour of tilapia is red, which was initially a genetic cross between a female Mozambique and the typical male tilapia fish. Several factors influence the colour of the tilapia fish, including the sexual rate of maturity, the geographical location of its growth and the kind and source of food.
One of the reasons tilapia are preferred over a large variety of fish for farming is due to their ease of growth. Tilapia requires minimal upkeep to reach maturity. For these reasons, fish farmers can invest less capital and space and still expect to produce many mature fish.
Successful farming of tilapia depends on many factors. To breed them commercially one needs to understand the species' maturity rate. Understanding this aspect of tilapia farming will enable accurate estimation of the investment required before the fish can make expected returns. Native tilapia take more time to mature and, due to overfishing, these indigenous species are slowly decreasing in numbers.
For this reason, among others such as the difficulties in growing hyacinth (a staple of the tilapia diet), the native species of fish are much more expensive as compared to the exotic species. The weight of fish wholly depends on the conduciveness of the environment in which it grows.
In a well-lit and fed environment with optimum temperature, the Mozambique tilapia can grow up to half a kilo. In a poor environment, however, their growth is stunted and they can weigh as little as 20 grams.
We have witnessed a quick rise in the consumption of tilapia over the past decade, especially in the United States. The tilapia fish has been invested mostly in tropical areas but also in subtropical regions. They can survive in warm freshwater and can be produced in large numbers.
For the reasons above as well as the growth in the universal rate of consumption, the tilapia has become more popular in aquaculture. The number of fish produced yearly for trade is approximately 1.4 million tonnes. The largest producers (Indonesia, China, the Philippines and Taiwan) cumulatively produce almost 76 percent of the total number caught annually.
Most of these fish are exported to non-fish farming countries such as Mexico, the United States and South Africa. However, there have been some fluctuations in the market trends of tilapia. While some areas such as Africa have experienced market growth, some like the Latin Americas have experienced a fall in trade.
The price of tilapia per pound varies hugely from country to country. On average, a mature tilapia fish may go for US $3 per kilogram in the United States. In the producing countries such as Kenya, a wild tilapia may sell for $5 on average, and the exotic species can go for an average of $2.
The production and trade of tilapia as a business enterprise has improved over recent years, owing to the developments in fish farming technology and techniques. Further study of the species has enabled both farmers and researches to improve the variety and number of fish produced.